Broken Budget Process

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Wednesday, August 11, 2004
The U.S. Senate spent the month of July this year considering on the floor a range of interesting issues, from a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage to a bid to help tobacco farmers make the transition from their dying industry. There was one important subject largely missing from its deliberations, however: the federal budget. 

It used to be that July on Capitol Hill meant only one thing: funding programs for the coming year. It is a complex process, in which 13 separate appropriations bills, which together cover the length and breadth of the U.S. government, must be put together, examined, debated, amended, and finally voted on in both the House and the Senate. This can seem cumbersome and time-consuming, but since Congress is really using the budget to set its priorities, respond to the President’s priorities, describe what it thinks the nation’s policies ought to look like for the following year, and keep the government operating, it’s a vital responsibility. 

This year, however, Congress– and the Senate in particular– seems to be having trouble with its duties. The odds are that it will not actually get down to finishing this year’s funding cycle until after the November elections are over– well after the start of the next fiscal year, and at a time when any number of Senators and House members will be preparing to leave office. Even then, it’s likely that most of the 13 separate measures will be rolled into one gigantic “omnibus” bill. Not since 2001 has Congress addressed all 13 appropriations bills separately, and its inability to face its responsibilities head-on is one reason this country is struggling with a rapidly growing federal deficit. This is, at best, unfortunate legislating; it may even be a sign that something is broken on Capitol Hill. 

To be sure, even when the process is messy and tortuous and Congress seems gridlocked, in the end it always finds a way to meet its constitutional responsibility of funding the operations of government. That will no doubt happen this year, as well. But how Congress goes about funding the government is just as important as actually funding it, and the truth is, Congress has simply been unable to make the budget process work properly this time around. It could not agree on an overall budget resolution, which is the framework members of Congress use to guide their efforts; as a result, they had no guidelines to steer by as they set about crafting their appropriations bills. And while the various House committees have managed to put their stamp on most of the funding measures, the Senate has been hung up on a variety of policy disputes embedded in each appropriations bill. The result is that Congress will probably have to resort to stitching almost all the measures into a last-minute “omnibus” package, a move that runs counter to every rule of good legislative practice. 

Omnibus bills are usually colossal measures– both physically and legislatively– that come to the floor with no amendments allowed and very little time permitted to study them fully. Because of their sheer size and complexity, they make it nearly impossible for lawmakers to know precisely what’s in them, and they invite legislation designed to evade scrutiny. As Wisconsin’s David Obey, a veteran of the appropriations process, commented recently, they are “a garbage dump” for legislation that congressional committees ought to be carefully reviewing. Where the budget process should be about accountability, transparency, and full deliberation of difficult issues, omnibus bills promote none of these principles. 

Congress has reached this point for several reasons. Perhaps the most important is that, like the country at large, it is narrowly divided politically. The budget presents it with many of the most difficult policy questions it faces, and reaching either consensus or a workable majority is extremely tricky. In a functioning legislative body, even that should be possible. The problem is, the atmosphere on Capitol Hill is so toxic these days that Democrats and Republicans can barely imagine finding a middle ground. Instead, both parties are inclined just to wait for November and hope that their side emerges from the elections in better shape. 

That may happen, in purely partisan terms, but the elections will hardly resolve the more fundamental issue. The truth is, there is no more basic test of a legislature than its ability to pass a budget. Congress’s shortcomings this year clearly show that it has deep-seated problems that need addressing. The Congress simply does not serve the nation well by dealing with the budget in such a dysfunctional way. 

(Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.)